Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Title has been changed from the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2003. I welcome the Minister back to the House.

When we finished yesterday evening, the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, had said that this Bill was not hers and she did not want to accept the compliments coming her way. They were right and fitting in the light of her approach to education and the work she has been doing. We were talking about the part of the Bill that covers integration and what is often called "mainstreaming". Several speakers have mentioned its importance to the individual with a disability in allowing that person to feel that a holistic approach is being taken to his or her education. They can share a classroom environment with their families, brothers and sisters, and friends.

I also view the matter from the other perspective. It is important that pupils who do not have a disability realise their advantages. In some ways, it could assist them in their education to recognise that others do not have the same opportunities and have to work much harder and make much greater effort to achieve their ultimate goals. The principle of mainstreaming which, when initiated, was probably more to do with assisting the person with the disability, has a tremendous knock-on effect in broadening the mind and breaking down those barriers that existed for so long.

Growing up, we probably all witnessed cases where people with disabilities were seen as an embarrassment to their families. Many children were pushed into the background, in some cases being kept from public view and, if severely handicapped, sent to homes. The enlightened approach now taken to the development of policy, particularly in the area of education, has meant that that can no longer happen. That this Bill recognises that in its approach to mainstreaming is welcome. It has the potential to ensure that we never return to the dark days.

The Bill sets out a range of services that must be provided in the process of education for children with disabilities. It refers to the necessity for assessment, individual education plans and support services, enshrining that in the legislation. It also provides for the important process of mediation. Like other speakers, I welcome the establishment of the National Council for Special Education, which is an important statutory authority. It will develop and add to policy. I am sure that, at a later stage, it may provide further amendments to the legislation. It will be responsible for the delivery of the Bill's main provisions, which are welcome, as are its prescriptive nature and the way in which it prescribes individual assessments and the drawing up of individual education plans. While some of that work was already happening, it is important to ensure now that it happen as a right and that, regardless of who is delivering it at local level, there is now an obligation to do so.

To some extent the Bill places the onus on school principals to act if a child's needs are not being catered for. Several other speakers referred to its importance. At times, school principals would often prefer to have the decision made for them externally. That was probably not the best way to proceed. In most cases principals recognise that they have the greatest capacity to understand children's individual needs. It is impossible to set a matrix of guidelines and rules to cover every eventuality, since each child's needs are different, and it is important that the onus be on the principal. I am sure that the teaching unions have expressed their views on that, but no doubt the Department has succeeded in placating them on the issues as they arise.

A time limit of three months is outlined for intervention. Such limits are important to ensure this is done in an orderly fashion. The Bill requires consultation with parents and other relevant individuals. That is important since, from time to time in the past, there was not the same necessity to involve the parents. By and large that happened, but it is important to recognise that. The majority of parents whose children have special needs whom I have met put great effort into ensuring that their children get everything possible. It is important that that need be recognised. We will probably all hear about and be lobbied on the principle of early intervention and the necessity that difficulties be recognised early.

Another important element is the review process for the educational plans. No one has a monopoly of wisdom or all the bright ideas, and it does no harm for us all to go back over what we do from time to time and ensure we are doing it in a proper and efficient manner. The review of those plans is important in that regard. The Bill recognises the need for co-operation and co-ordination between the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Children, and that is critical. The Bill appears to recognise the current deficiency in that regard and intends to resolve it. It is largely silent on how that will apply with the health boards; that must be addressed with regard to the co-operation between the two agencies. The Minister is more than familiar with some of the cases in our own county, where the Department of Education and Science is quite forthcoming in providing facilities for autism. She has played a major role in at least two projects, if not more, in our county, to ensure that the Department of Education and Science delivered very quickly. That is tremendously welcome, but we must do something about the role of the health boards and the assistance they will provide in that regard. The current situation is certainly unacceptable, particularly where there is a lack of professionals providing therapy such as speech and language therapy. We have talked about that and referred to two cases in Loop Head and Senator Daly's area.

There has been a general perception for some time that this problem is due to a lack of Government funding. When one scratches the surface, however, one finds that the funding is there. Some positions have not been filled because of the nature of the work involved and the difficulty in getting people to move to remote locations. This is primarily an issue for the Department of Health and Children but the Minister of State has been working to address the problem. One solution is to try to make the positions available to speech and language and occupational therapists in the health service more flexible and more balanced so that they are not constantly dealing with the same type of problem. This is important because there is so much opportunity for them to make good money in the private sector and to be flexible in terms of the way they do their work. The work done by the Department of Education and Science on this matter is enshrined in the Bill but it must work in parallel with the Department of Health and Children to ensure we are not left with an exceptionally good system delivered through education while significant deficiencies remain in the health area.

One element of the problem is that parents of children with special educational needs feel there is a greater array of services available for those living in urban areas. This is true of all services in that there is a greater concentration where the population dictates that services can be clustered. But people living in less densely populated parts of the country should not feel they are being offered an inferior service to that enjoyed by their urban counterparts. Effort is required to ensure that these geographical issues are resolved. The Hanly report mentions this geographical issue so perhaps that thinking will permeate through the Department of Health and Children and assist in the delivery of services in this area.

I did not think the Hanly report would be mentioned here today.

Senator Burke is aware that the Hanly report has a capacity to deliver very well as we have discussed on previous occasions——

Senator Dooley went shy about the Hanly report in the past.

My party was never shy about the Hanly report and Senator Burke is aware that the electoral record in County Clare demonstrates that the report had no effect on our performance despite the fact that there were cries from all sides——

It is too late in the evening for that discussion.

It certainly is not and I would be happy to go through the numbers with Senator Burke and demonstrate that the seats lost in certain geographical areas had nothing to do with health. That is another day's work however.

I welcome the weighted system for the delivery of resource teachers, which is being introduced by the Department of Education and Science. It is important to recognise that the emphasis on the role of the principal is being restored in allowing a certain amount of teaching capacity for that role and control of the allocation of resources. This is an improvement on the present system, which has us all driven around the bend, whereby detailed applications must be submitted to the special education unit in Athlone to undergo a complex processing procedure. This will particularly benefit those children with a less severe disability or special educational need, which can be easily diagnosed by teachers. The necessary resources in these cases can now be applied immediately without the necessity for primary, secondary and tertiary assessment and so on, which was logjamming the Department of Education and Science. I look forward to the implementation of this new system in September.

I have already discussed the matter of special needs assistants with the Minister of State and there is an issue here regarding the cap on numbers. A number of children will continue to require the services of classroom assistants as it is the only way they can successfully function within a mainstream school environment. We must ensure that the needs of such children are met while also ensuring that children without special needs are not unduly hindered because of potential unruly behaviour, for example. This issue must be resolved, potentially by means of a similar weighted system to provide teachers with the capability to deliver the necessary resources. The current situation whereby there is a need for a student to have an individual classroom assistant is unnecessary. Some students seem to believe they have ownership of particular assistants and this has caused some difficulties. There is a capacity for sharing in this area in a similar manner to the sharing of the resource in schools.

I compliment the Department of Education and Science on the tremendous strides that have been made and recognise that this Bill represents the legislative framework for the future provision and enhancement of special educational needs services. There has been much debate in this House about the Government's commitment to providing the necessary funding and funding will always be an issue irrespective of which party is in power and how resources are disbursed. This Government has demonstrated its commitment in terms of the allocation of extra teachers, a crucial measure which represents an excellent way to begin the implementation of this legislation. People on this side of the House would never claim that the problem is entirely resolved through the introduction of this Bill——

I am delighted Senator Dooley included that qualification.

Having worked in the teaching profession, Senator Burke will be more aware than I of the needs that exist.

Senator Dooley wants a get-out clause.

I have no doubt that this Government is committed in the same manner that my party has always been committed since even before the time of Mr. Donogh O'Malley and his achievement in taking on and delivering reform to the education sector. It is important that the current Government continue that tradition. I compliment the Minister of State on the work she is doing and on this Bill.

I thank the Minister of State for the brave work she is doing in the Department of Education and Science about which she keeps this House regularly briefed. I welcome this Bill because it establishes the foundation for a new service for those with special educational needs. The service has been fragmented, disjointed and unco-ordinated over the years and one of the greatest criticisms has been that the Department of Education and Science was unaware of what the health boards were doing andvice versa. Senator Dooley mentioned the shortage of professionals required to provide the necessary services, particularly in isolated areas, whether speech therapy, psychological services and so on. These professionals are currently in short supply and it is often the people who most need the service who are denied it because they reside in an isolated location and because the service is not available in a co-ordinated manner.

I am concerned about the issue of early diagnosis of those with special educational needs. It is vital that problems are identified before children even start school. The emphasis in this Bill is on the education system but the real problems arise when parents discover, perhaps very shortly after their child is born, that he or she will have significant special educational needs in the long term. This is long before there is any contact with the education system and any proper diagnosis of a child's particular educational difficulties. There is an absence of support, advice and guidance for families in those critical days after they discover they have a serious problem on their hands. The extent of the problem and its long-term consequences may not be identified for some time.

The Minister of State with responsibility for children outlined the provisions of the Bill. I draw the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera's, attention to the need for an early response and to have some help and advice mechanism available for people when they discover, sometimes to their alarm and consternation, that their child has a problem that will remain with him or her throughout their life. That is a frightening thought. I know many families who have had to cope with that type of situation and they have felt frustrated, and sometimes irritated, by the services provided. This aspect is of critical importance.

Despite modern technology and the large amount of investment made in the modernisation of health services generally, increasing numbers of children still appear to be presenting with difficulties that are almost insurmountable. This is why I drew the attention of the Minister of State in the other debate to the need to undertake detailed research and to allocate funding to determine, if possible, the causes of some of the problems that arise despite all the expertise that is available. All the small maternity hospitals were closed, for example, because it was thought that if their functions could be handled differently and better, these problems would not arise, given modern sophisticated systems with paediatric and all the other relevant advice that is available.

However, there appear to be increasing problems, as highlighted in west Clare recently when we met parents from the Loop Head peninsula, as the Minister of State knows. They have children with special needs and only a poor service, if any, is available. Sometimes they have to travel many miles to get advice. In some cases they must go abroad to Hungary and other countries. They feel there is some research and advice there which is not available in this country and that help may be provided for them abroad that they cannot get here. Measures should be taken before this legislation is concluded, possibly on Committee Stage, to ensure some form of guidance and advisory assistance is provided to parents in the early stages of diagnosis, long before the children go to school or need special classes and teachers. This should be made available in an organised and planned way, particularly to give parents up-to-date scientific assessments of their children's prospects and how matters may be addressed.

There may be a need for special education for some teachers as well. Under this legislation a significant amount of responsibility is being placed on teachers and the teaching profession. I am not sure they are qualified to deal with many of the psychological and other problems that will arise in these cases. They will need to have professional help available to them at an early stage to enable them to carry out the work they need to do. It would be most unfair to place responsibility on people in schools and in the educational system for matters for which they are neither trained nor qualified. I presume there is some level of training in the colleges of education in view of the new responsibilities that will be placed on teachers. I do not believe it will be possible to provide a psychological service that is needed in many cases given the professional norms in teaching at present. I do not know whether there is a plan to deal with that aspect. Perhaps we could get clarification at some stage on how that is to be addressed.

There were several references in the Minister of State's speech to the relationship between the system being provided under this legislation and the various health boards. However, as we all know, the health boards are being abolished. There is no clear indication at this stage as to what way the different areas will be managed under the new model of health administration. I understand there are to be four boards for the different areas. I am not certain that the wisest course is to divide the activities of the current health boards between the four new systems. In legislation such as this, it is timely to examine whether it is necessary to rearrange the administration of the health authorities, especially the new forums that are to be set up in the respective areas of health administration, so that there is participation in the new health system by elected representatives in the local communities.

It is time to examine how the new system will dovetail with what is being provided under this legislation. It is not good enough to continue with the current system, where one hand does not know in what the other is involved. We had experience of this recently where services were being sanctioned by one Department while another wanted them phased out. It is time to stop the fragmentation, division and compartmentalisation of activities that has been taking place in various Departments.

Perhaps the national council, as proposed in the Bill, might be the vehicle to deal with that matter. I welcome the establishment of the national council. I strongly urge the Minister of State, when the council is set up, to advise it about the various issues that have arisen in these debates. Sometimes, although legislation gives an overall concept of what is to be put in place, it does not always work out in reality. Perhaps before the legislation is finalised, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, might give some indication as to how the service being designed under this Bill will dovetail with the reorganised health system that is being put in place and how local community involvement may be built into that also. That will again help to eliminate much of the frustration being felt by parents as regards special educational activity.

Recently we saw the concerns of people vividly expressed in the European elections, when Ms Kathy Sinnott was overwhelmingly elected on the basis of the activities in which she has been involved. She has been highlighting areas of disability for many years and people's special needs. Some highly experienced politicians, such as Mr. Gerry Collins, participated in that contest, yet out of the blue Ms Sinnott was catapulted into the European Parliament, mainly through the support of people who feel that this area has been neglected. There is a public perception that the area of children with special needs and requirements has not been given the financial or human resources attention it deserves. There is a clear signal there for us from the public in the constituency of Munster that people want action to deal with the issues with which Ms Sinnott is connected. We should learn from that lesson and take appropriate action. There should be more community involvement with the national council, more participation by local communities in the framing of arrangements to be put in place for the administration of services and, perhaps above all, a system of public private partnership to provide facilities to deal with some of the problems that exist. When the Minister for Finance introduced tax concessions for those providing respite care in institutions which care for elderly patients, many establishments were able to increase their bed capacity. Nursing homes like St. Theresa's in Kilrush were able to build new extensions and to provide extra beds as a result of that incentive.

Perhaps the Minister of State could speak to the Minister for Finance about the necessity to provide further incentives for those providing respite and care assistance. Many people are frustrated by the lack of places providing respite care for children. Also, there are not sufficient facilities available for carers, be it equipment, additional beds and accommodation or additional assistance, some of which is being provided by volunteer organisations. I welcome the work undertaken by voluntary organisations such as the Brothers of Charity. Such organisations receive a substantial amount of funding from health boards. Many people are critical of Government in that regard and often feel that were it not for a particular voluntary organisation they would have nothing. However, what they do not realise is that the voluntary organisations are substantially funded by the State, something not often acknowledged or appreciated.

I do not wish to delay the Bill's passage. Members will have another opportunity on Committee Stage to tease it out further. This legislation provides us with an opportunity in the preparation of the administration of the new health boards to weld together a system which will respond to people's needs so that people will no longer be frustrated in terms of how they feel they are being treated. When this legislation is enacted and the national council takes up its role we will have a system, which can respond quickly and professionally to meet the requirements of those with special educational needs.

I hope the legislation will deal satisfactorily with the needs of those disappointed and frustrated by previous legislation and will provide those who care for children with special needs with an easier life. In many cases such special needs can be alleviated by support, guidance and financial assistance.

It is a little like a meeting of the Clare persons' association in the Chamber this evening. I am a second generation Clare person.

The phrase "A lot done, more to do" is applicable in the area of special needs. The announcement in the past few days by the Department of Education and Science regarding the specific allocations of special needs assistants is incredible. The Department had that information for more than a year.

I am aware of a particular case, which arose for a school in County Clare. A civil servant based in Wicklow collected from the school all the information needed about its pupils with special needs and returned to Dublin with it. The school in question then had to fill out a detailed questionnaire and had to answer many detailed questions on the matter over the telephone. The same information was requested from the school on three different occasions. As if that were not bad enough, the school then had to wait a full year for the allocation to be made. One student had to wait 12 months for a special needs assistant. A year is a long time but a year out of eight years in terms of one's primary school education is an extremely long time. Primary school education is in many ways the foundation for life.

Announcement of the allocations last Friday when most schools had commenced or were about to commence their summer holidays was an incredible decision which placed principals in an impossible position. While some schools gained resource hours, a particular school in north Kilkenny is losing them. That places principals and parents in an impossible situation, especially those parents whose children will not now obtain special needs assistance. They cannot take up this matter during the summer because schools are closed, principals or class teachers are not available and trying to get through to the Department of Education and Science or obtaining an answer from officials there is a major endeavour, to say the least.

One would imagine the Department of Education and Science to be the smartest Department. However, that is not the case. Many schools which received news that they are to gain teachers also received a circular regarding staff appointments and new procedures that may arise as a result of special needs allocations. That matter was decided last March yet it has taken three months for schools to receive that circular. Perhaps the Minister of State will reply on those two points. Why was the announcement regarding special needs appointments made at the 11th hour and why did a circular regarding staff appointments and procedures for appointments take three or four months to arrive in schools? I understand some schools have not yet received the circular.

The deployment of teachers for the coming school year is unclear. The circular states that the Department of Education and Science will communicate with schools regarding new clusters of schools being created before the commencement of the coming school year. That is very vague. Schools are closed for the summer. When will principals and teachers be informed of what will happen? Many Members represent rural constituencies where schools are currently working in clusters. It will be awkward for three or four principals to pool resources and work together. This decision places them in a difficult situation. Although I hope I am wrong, I predict there will be anarchy and chaos in schools for the first few weeks of September. That should not be the case. In my view the Minister should make decisions for the following school year in February to ensure a smooth transition period. The danger now is that the months of September and October will be wasted while schools try to get organised.

The Bill proposes the removal of children with dyslexia and dyspraxia from resource hours to learning support teachers. However, school staff have no idea how such teachers will put in the hours required by these children while taking care of the needs of children with learning difficulties. The position of special needs assistants is also vague. The circular states that schools will be advised of the outcome of their application as soon as possible in advance of the next school year. When will they be advised in that regard given that they are closed for the summer?

The Department has not informed schools of decisions regarding resource hours, special needs assistants and possible job appointments. It takes a number of weeks to fill vacancies as one must first advertise the position and then hold interviews. That impinges on principals and boards of management who must give up their time to deal with this matter during the summer, something which is quite difficult to do at a time when most people take their holidays. The announcement of extra special needs assistants is to be welcomed. However, I wonder from where they will come. It is currently quite difficult to recruit full-time qualified teachers. It is possible special needs assistants will be taken from mainstream classes. The question then arises as to who will replace them. I recently raised the issue of cutbacks in the postgraduate places for teacher training. Such cutbacks make no sense given the number of graduates wanting to undertake teacher training. It is not good enough that they cannot do so. They should be allowed to take the postgraduate course because there is a shortage of teachers and the country needs teachers badly. It does not make sense to reduce the number of postgraduate places.

Will students who receive resource hours keep those hours for the following year and the rest of their school-going days? I am aware that five children who receive special needs assistance in a school were not on a list given to the school's authorities recently. When parents telephoned the Department to find out why their children were not on the list, they were informed that a mistake had been made by, the Department and that they should be on the list. Was it a one-off case or are similar cases to be found throughout the country? Is it the case that children who should be on lists are missing from such lists? The system does not seem to be very well organised because mistakes are being made. Such mistakes will not be spotted until September because we are entering the summer period.

The National Disability Authority began its work in June 2000 and has published three annual reports since then. The reports have not been made public, which is not a great vote of confidence. I ask that the reports be released so we can make a judgment on the authority's work. I am glad to have availed of the opportunity to discuss this matter. When I raised it on the Order of Business, the Leader, who is a former teacher and Minister for Education, agreed with the points I made. I hope the Minister of State will bear them in mind.

I thank the Senators who contributed to this Second Stage debate. Not only have many Members shown a great interest in the Bill, but many of them have shown that they have a great deal of knowledge of the subject. It is always useful in such debates to hear concrete examples such as those we have heard this evening. As we are dealing with a sensitive issue, it is important to deal with it in the best possible way. The Bill benefited significantly from the scrutiny it received in the Dáil and it can only benefit from the debate in the Seanad. Having listened carefully to the comments made, I would like to speak about a number of the issues raised.

I disagree with some of the points made by Senators Cox and Ulick Burke about the Bill. The legislation is designed to elaborate on and ensure the delivery of the constitutional rights of children with special educational needs. It will provide a statutory guarantee to an assessment, an education plan and support services, something which does not exist at present. Along with other Senators, they raised the issue of the definition of a "child" and the limitation of the benefits of the Bill to those under 18 years of age. The purpose of this Bill is to address the constitutional rights in Article 42 of the Constitution, particularly the right to free primary education of children under 18. Section 15 recognises that in preparing and reviewing education plans, regard must be had to the provision that must be made to allow the child to continue his or her education after the age of 18.

The forthcoming disability Bill will deal more specifically with the delivery of services, including education services, to adults with disabilities. When taken with the introduction of an advocacy service for children and adults under the Comhairle Bill, this legislation and the disability Bill will offer a complete and seamless service, albeit with differing regimes, for children and adults.

A number of Senators mentioned the need for early intervention, which all of us recognise as important. We should provide properly for the transitions between pre-school and primary education, as well as between primary and secondary education. That a "child" is defined as a person under the age of 18 demonstrates a commitment to intervening as early as possible. Education plans must contain inputs to facilitate important transitions in a child's education.

I invite those Senators who referred to resources to consider more closely section 13, which requires the Ministers for Education and Science, Health and Children and Finance to provide the necessary funds to allow for the preparation and implementation of education plans. Section 9(7) requires that schools be provided with the resources necessary to prepare and implement education plans. Some Senators misunderstand the purpose of section 13. It has been argued that the inclusion of a reference to the consent of the Minister for Finance to resourcing decisions under the Bill is tantamount to a veto for the financial watchdogs over the rights of children with disabilities, but that is emphatically not the case.

The record speaks——

The reference to the Minister for Finance in section 13 ensures that when he exercises his constitutional duty to control expenditure, he is reminded of the State's duty in Article 42 to make proper provision for the education of all the children of the State. He will have to ensure that those who need the most help get the most help.

Hear, hear.

The record stands.

Section 13 is unique in shaping the exercise of this discretion. If the Minister for Finance fails to make adequate resources available to the Ministers for Health and Children and Education and Science to discharge their duties under the Act, those who suffer as a consequence may have grounds for a review of the Minister's failure in the High Court. Section 13 provides an essential guarantee to parents by giving them the mechanism through which they can ultimately call the Government to account before the courts.

I reject absolutely the suggestion that the Government does not treat children with special educational needs as a priority. It is not credible as the number of resource teachers in the State has grown from 104 to 2,500 since 1998. The number of learning support teachers has increased by 300 and there are more than 4,500 full-time and 1,500 part-time special needs assistant posts. Senators are aware that a further 350 posts have recently been sanctioned. The National Council for Special Education is in the process of appointing 80 special needs organisers.

I recognise there is a delay in dealing with applications for special needs assistants in my Department. The new system for allocating resources, which was announced recently, will address the problem by substantially reducing the need for individual applications and supporting psychological assessments. It will put resources in place on a more systematic basis, thereby giving schools more certainty over their resource levels. This will allow for better planning in schools and greater scope for early intervention.

I would like to examine one of Senator Fitzgerald's many interesting comments. It is right that principals should have responsibility for arranging assessments and education plans. It does not mean that they will have to take on the task single-handedly. Guidelines will be prepared by the national council to assist principals and staff, to whom they delegate tasks. In more complex cases, principals will be able to call on special educational needs organisers to take over the assessment and planning processes.

Senator O'Toole queried the duty of special needs organisers to assist principals in their duties under the Bill, which is provided for in section 18. The inclusion of psychologists on the team preparing the education plan is provided for in section 8. The Senator drew attention to the fact that explicit provision is not made in the Bill for the delivery of services through Irish, where it is appropriate to the needs of a child with special educational needs. I agree that the needs of the child and the wishes of the parent are essential to the educational process. Statutory guarantees in the Official Languages Act and the Education Act secure the linguistic rights of all children within education. Children with special educational needs are no different in this regard. The most appropriate mechanism to deal with this issue is by means of guidelines issued by the National Council for Special Education.

A great deal of effort and resources will be needed to implement the Bill's provisions. In this context, a five-year implementation plan is not unrealistic and has received widespread support. There is much work to be done by the National Council for Special Education in delivering on the legislation but this will be one of the most important projects in the history of the education system.

I thank Senators for their contributions to the debate and look forward to continuing this process in subsequent Stages in the House.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 6 July 2004.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.